Accountability can help Chinese dairies regain trust

By Liu Yuanju Source:Global Times Published: 2018/3/4 23:02:01

Illustration: Luo Xuan/GT

French dairy giant Lactalis recently admitted that some of its milk sources may have been contaminated for more than 10 years, following a milk powder scandal involving the company in December. As soon as the news broke, heated debate developed among Chinese consumers, as most new parents in China prefer imported milk powder to domestic brands.

Since the Sanlu milk powder scandal nearly 10 years ago, Chinese domestic milk powder has had a bad reputation. Although China's quality testing standards for milk powder now far exceed those of Western countries, consumers still don't trust local brands. Even low-income parents find ways to pay for expensive imported milk powder for their babies.

Why have improved quality controls failed to regain consumers' trust in Chinese brands?

First, regaining goodwill takes long time. Actually, some foreign brands now use Chinese milk powder as their raw material, and some products are even totally made in China under a foreign brand name. This shows that China has changed tremendously in terms of milk powder safety.

The Sanlu scandal evoked strong emotions among Chinese consumers and strained communication between Chinese milk powder producers and consumers. In such a situation, even if product quality improves, it is very hard for consumers to change their attitudes quickly. Once a business reputation is destroyed, regaining trust takes a lot of time. It is not enough to make a brand famous through high quality - a good reputation must be maintained, as regaining goodwill is tough.

Second, the ability to deal with a public opinion crisis is important. Many small and medium-sized Chinese companies are deficient on this point, compared with companies in foreign countries that have in-house public relations departments. When a crisis strikes, Chinese enterprises have no way to address the problem, and this can even lead to conflicts with consumers. The problem only gets worse and it can have irreparable consequences.

Food safety problems happen everywhere, not just in China. Minimizing the negative impact and expressing a positive attitude about solving the problem are important in terms of controlling the situation.

Third, food safety protection needs a more complete system. For example, there should be an intact system to evaluate production safety, the effectiveness of law enforcement and management of public opinion.

To safeguard the legal rights of consumers, the responsibility of every level should be clarified. If the rights and interests of consumers can be fully guaranteed, any problems can be solved effectively. In this situation, even if consumers buy a problematic product, they can be compensated and get protection for their rights and interests.

Consumers' preference for imported milk powder stems from their trust in the foreign food safety regulatory systems. Due to frequent problems of food safety in China, advertising and publicity about quality standards won't be enough to gain full public confidence in domestic milk powder. Only genuine accountability, clear penalties and effective protection of consumers' rights will be effective.

Compared with foreign milk powder, Chinese brands have advantages: for example, the formulations are more suitable for the Chinese physiology and the prices are more reasonable.

If the high quality of milk powder is maintained, the transparency of the production and marketing processes is increased, and communication is improved, then qualified domestic products will be recognized.

The author is a research fellow with the Shanghai Institute of Finance and Law.


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